In a resort on the Sunshine Coast, I recently saw a poster with the caption, ‘How Beautiful it is to do nothing … and then rest Afterwards.’ The poster obviously served as an encouragement for people to visit the Coast, enjoy themselves and do nothing, and then rest afterwards. However, the caption could appropriately be used to describe the performance of the Morrison federal government, at least in the domestic arena.
This theme of a do-nothing government permeates a topical book, just published by the Brisbane-based Locke Press, about the 30th Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison. The book, Deconstructing ScoMo: Critical Reflections on Australia’s 30th Prime Minister is a scathing and detailed review of the performance of the Prime Minister and his Liberal government. As the federal election, likely to be held in May 2022, is looming, the book, co-authored by Rocco Loiacono and Augusto Zimmermann, who are accomplished academics and astute political commentators, facilitates an assessment of the achievements (or lack of them) of the Coalition government during the last four years. The book focuses on the policy decisions and actions of the Prime Minister and his government, which have contributed to Australia becoming an illiberal country. Specifically, the authors ruminate on the Prime Minister’s performance in several key areas, including freedom of speech and the rule of law, religious freedom, discrimination and affirmative action issues, and management of the COVID-19 pandemic. James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, contributed a Foreword to the book.
The authors foreshadow in their Preface that, “Morrison’s prime ministership has seen the Liberals continue the lurch to the left that was started by Malcolm Turnbull” which, in turn, resulted in Australians “feeling more concerned than ever about their future and their children’s future.”
The authors painstakingly detail the disparagement of freedom of speech by the Morrison government and its careless trashing of other basic rights. Specifically, they argue that “The Morrison government has been responsible for a substantial increase in the violation of fundamental legal rights.” In this context, they refer to Morrison’s now famous gaffe that free speech “doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour.” This statement misunderstands the symbiotic relationship between economic prosperity and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is an incentive to people to set up businesses without hindrance and interference from the government and promotes the aims of a free society.
Although sympathisers of the government may argue that the Prime Minister has good intentions, his impetuous comments, which jeopardise the ‘rule of law’, are baffling and have inflicted ineffable misery on those who are the recipient of his invective. This character trait is driven by a perception that populist comments will afford him short-term political favour and plaudits, which may well be the case, but the concomitant violation of rights and disembowelment of the rule of law are lasting casualties of such an approach. His pre-judging of Cardinal George Pell, which the authors recount, is one example of this failing.
The book contains three chapters on the demise of the Religious Discrimination Bill. During the election campaign of 2019, the Prime Minister committed his government to adopting a Religious Discrimination Act. However, the proposed law, the Religious Discrimination Bill, was recently shelved. As the authors cogently argue, the Bill’s failure is attributable, among other things, to the government’s misguided idea of approaching the protection of religious freedom from the perspective of discrimination, rather than that of a broader and less divisive discussion about the restoration of fundamental freedoms. The Australian government should protect not only religious freedom but also freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and the right to peaceful assembly.
Six chapters of the book deal with the management of the toxic world of COVID-19. These chapters are a testimony that the Prime Minister and his government have miserably failed Australia. At the very start of the pandemic, the government, to the surprise of those who are fiscal conservatives, started to spend money which the country could not afford and does not have. Despite generous handouts, the government’s approach decimated the business sector and destroyed jobs. It is ironic that the Prime Minister felt that free speech has not created any jobs, even though his government had destroyed more jobs than any other Australian government by irresponsibly managing Australia’s financial resources.
Moreover, as the authors argue, the reality is that the Commonwealth has the constitutional power to impose a unified, national approach on all Australian States and Territories to avoid the balkanizing effect of inconsistent and draconian state emergency measures. However, not only did the Federal government fail to adopt a national response to the pandemic, but the Prime Minister also went out of his way to unreservedly support the violations of human rights by the States and Territories. For example, the Prime Minister’s supported the Victorian Premier throughout the pandemic, saying that “Daniel Andrews has my full support … I will give him every support he needs.”
As described by the authors of the book, the health directions have facilitated the development of a growing two-tier society where some people are more privileged than others, involving the distribution of burdens and benefits simply on the ground of people’s vaccine status. The daunting prospect of a two-tier Australian society is that, even when the pandemic has receded, Australia will have irretrievably changed for the worse. This is because fundamental rights will become even more dependent on the government’s generosity and could quickly be taken away at the slightest provocation, especially in the field of health. The authors’ message is that the legacy of COVID-19 is defacing Australia, while potentially, if not actually, transforming it into an illiberal state.
The authors of the book succinctly sum up their assessment of the Prime Minister’s performance as follows: “At the coming federal election, the Coalition Government will be seeking a fourth term in office. At that point in its life cycle, a government seeking re-election would be able to point to its record as justification to the voters that it deserves another go. Unfortunately, this supposedly centre-right government has not enacted a single major reform that its constituency can be proud of. Not one. Mr Morrison in particular appears to be doing everything in his power to disavow core conservative values, with disastrous effects.”
After reading the book, one may well ask the question, ‘what is the alternative to the Liberals?’ The authors are no friends of the ALP, as can be seen in the book, however, the authors demonstrate that now the great Australian challenge is to restore the trust that people place in government. This will require Australians to carefully consider where they place their preferences at the upcoming federal election so as to avoid the disaster that would be an Albanese-led Labor government, but also draw the Coalition back to its conservative base. There are now serious alternative parties on the right which, according to a recent Newspoll, attracted 14% of primary voting intentions. Unlike the exhortation on the Sunshine Coast poster, Australians cannot now afford to ‘to do nothing … and then rest afterwards.’ As the co-authors state: “Worse than doing nothing is to actually end up doing the wrong thing.” Thus, the book is a treasure trove of ideas and information which people might want to consider when voting in the upcoming federal election.